How Club World Was Born: A History of British Airways’ Business-Class Seat

Mar 19, 2019

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On Monday, British Airways unveiled its highly anticipated new Club World Suite product, which represents a quantum leap from the existing product. TPG UK Director of Content and BA regular Nicky Kelvin has already provided his thoughts on the new seat. Short version: It’s good, and worlds better than what it replaces.

It’s hard to believe it in 2019, but when the existing eight-abreast design was unveiled in March 2000, it was revolutionary and truly the best in class. In fact, British Airways was the first carrier to offer fully flat beds in business class, a luxury previously reserved only for first-class passengers. The problem with maintaining the same fundamental design for almost 20 years is that in that time, other major carriers have introduced huge innovations in their business-class products that have left British Airways behind.

We’ve seen direct aisle access for all passengers, increased privacy with head shrouds and even sliding doors, and multiple storage compartments to allow passengers to store all sorts of items from their hand luggage (and sometimes even the hand luggage itself), without having to get up and retrieve things from the overhead bins.

These innovations have become market standard.

So let’s look back through the history of the product, from where it started to where it is now.

Super Club

First class has been a standard feature since the early jet age. In the 1970s, airlines began looking for a way to cater to an increasing number of business travelers who could not go first class on the company dime, but still wanted benefits not provided in coach.

There’s a good deal of debate about which carrier created the first true international business class. Some say it was Qantas in 1979, some say it was Pan Am, while others insist it was British Airways. The conjecture arises because some airlines created business-class fares (with prices to match) with certain ‘soft product’ inclusions that regular coach passengers did not receive, but the passenger was still seated in the economy cabin because there was not yet a separate business-class cabin or seat.

TWA did this in 1978, but it was unpopular because business travelers were paying a lot more than the economy passenger sitting next to them without receiving a significantly better experience. Back in that same year, the aviation magazine Flight International published that BA would introduce an Executive Cabin on its Boeing 707 and 747 services, called Club Class.

However this also was just a full-fare economy with a fancy name that did not actually become a distinct business-class experience until 1981, when plush, comfortable recliners were installed as a separate cabin and proper class of service. These are the seats and images you might associate with a bygone age of airline travel, when passengers wore their Sunday best and enjoyed a freshly sliced carvery roast dinner onboard.

The width of these seats is impressive even compared with today’s leading business-class products — the Super Club recliner was a massive 24 inches wide. But remember: the legroom was nothing compared to today’s products, given there was no option to lay fully flat.

Qantas insists it was the first to create a proper, separate business-class cabin in 1979.

British Airways Super Club Class (Image courtesy of British Airways)

Club World Cradle

Just as we see innovation in premium products now, the same was true for the early versions of business class. The Super Club recliner seats, while wide and comfortable for sitting upright, were not an optimal design for sleeping, as they did not support the body (and particularly the legs) in a deeply reclined position.

So, in the 1990s, before the current “yin-yang” seat design, British Airways business-class seats improved to be more of a cradle design that contoured the entire body with adjustable headrests and footrests. This is not dissimilar from some of the best premium-economy products available today. Having adopted the Club name many years earlier from the Super Club days, the product was called, understandably, the Club World Cradle.

The seats were configured in a 2-3-2 layout, which is seen in many premium-economy cabins today. This was actually a more spacious layout, in width, than the current Club World product, with its 2-4-2 standard downstairs layout on the Boeing 747. The extra seat fits in by reducing the width of the aisles.

Before becoming the first airline to offer fully flat beds in business class, British Airways transported business passengers in Club World cradle seats, replete with adjustable footrests and headrests. Image courtesy of British Airways.
Club World Cradle (Image courtesy of British Airways)

Club World 1.0

In March 2000, British Airways unveiled a product that was like nothing any passenger had ever seen. British design firm Tangerine was engaged to create a brand-new product.

Key to the design was a unique alternating forward- and backward-facing “yin-yang” layout, meaning about half the passengers were facing backward.

At the time, it was a difficult sell to convince passengers to face backward; BA was the only airline to do so. So one way British Airways counteracted this was to place all highly prized, very private window seats facing backward. These window seats are now some of the most sought after in the Club World cabin due to the significant amount of privacy. Aside from takeoff and landing (which makes up a very small amount of the total time of long-haul flights), passengers barely notice they are facing backward.

Nowadays, some of the best business-class products in the world, such as Qatar Airways’ award winning QSuites and Etihad’s Business Studio, have many rear-facing seats in the cabin.

But perhaps even more revolutionary than the direction the seats faced was the fact that instead of simply reclining to sleep, the seat went completely flat. A leg rest folded up to meet the bottom of the seat, creating the world’s first bed in business class.

Privacy between passengers facing each other was created with a very retro-looking concertina fan that could be raised outside of takeoff and landing.

British Airways was first to market a fully flat bed in business class, called Club World. Image courtesy of British Airways.
British Airways was first to market a fully flat bed in business class, called Club World (Image courtesy of British Airways)

Club World 2.0

In 2006, British Airways unveiled the second version of the seat that was officially called Next Generation Club World — it has some definite improvements, like more privacy thanks to the high walls and increased seat width and length.

But the product still retained the same unusual layout and did not solve some of the complaints passengers still have to this day. In the year 2000 it stunned, but for at least the past five years, innovations by other carriers were unfavorable to the yin-yang design.

A solid frosted wall replaced the concertina fan design, and could be raised or lowered electronically. This provided a lot more privacy but also meant the divider had to be raised and lowered multiple times during the flight as cabin crew handed items to the passengers in the middle or window seats.

A Club World (business class) seat onboard our delivery flight. Photo by Paul Thompson
A Club World seat on the Boeing 787 (Photo by Paul Thompson/TPG)

Club World Suite

On Monday, British Airways unveiled the latest iteration of its business-class product. Finally, the airline that pioneered business class has a product that can compete with the best. But don’t expect to see it on a lot of its planes. With 134 twin-aisle jets in its fleet and just six scheduled to fly this year with the new product, it will take a while before it will fly on the whole long-haul fleet.

Featured image courtesy of British Airways

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